Non-fiction choices this month: the story of success and the art of happiness. While success doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness, acquiring the art of being happy could be seen as the greatest of all human achievements.

Outliers: The story of success by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane)

What is it that makes some people famous and successful, and others not? Why did the Beatles stand out from hundreds of other promising bands that never caught the world’s attention? How did Bill Gates get where he did, ahead of countless other brilliant techno-geeks? Is phenomenal success the triumph of exceptional talent over impossible odds? Malcolm Gladwell suggests that ability alone is not enough. To be an ‘outlier’ – someone whose star-studded path lies way outside normal experience – you need help, opportunity and a dollop of sheer luck.

‘What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they are like – what kind of personalities they have, how intelligent they are, or what kind of lifestyles they have, or what special talents they might have been born with. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top…

‘In Outliers I want to convince you that these personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.

‘It makes a difference when and where we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement is ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.’

Gladwell takes the Beatles, Gates and others in turn, describing the fortuitous twists of fate that brought them to greatness. He shows how Gates’ age and physical location primed his success; he explains why most Canadian hockey stars have birthdays in the first quarter of the year, and why October-born players are doomed not to make the grade; he analyses the events that made the Beatles a legend. Passion for a chosen field is only part of the success equation. Hard work – 10,000 hours of it, in fact – is what makes you shine, plus the hand of destiny putting you in the right place at the right time, activating the alchemy of success.

‘Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience,’ Gladwell writes. ‘But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.’

This is a fascinating and revealing read, making you wonder if fame is a random stroke of luck or the grand design of some people’s lives. It makes you aware of timing, synchronicity, the need to be alert to your own windows of opportunity, and the power of choice that allows each of us to direct the quality, if not the notoriety, of our days.

The Art of Happiness by HH Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler (Coronet)

This book is 10 years old, but its message is eternal. It grew out of conversations between Cutler, and American psychiatrist steeped in the Western medical model, and the Dalai Lama, whose view of mankind is informed by a 2 500-year-old spiritual tradition that holds that happiness is a matter of training the mind. ‘Mind’ in this context means more than cognitive ability or intellect; the DL uses it in the sense of the Tibetan word Sem, which includes intellect and feeling; heart and mind.

The purpose of our lives is to seek happiness, he says; happiness having more to do with peace of mind than material forms of success. We achieve it by deliberately selecting and focusing on positive mental states and eliminating negative mental states. That’s all it takes; gradually, we retrain the mind and develop inner calm and contentment that sees us through the ups and downs of life.

It sounds simplistic, but it’s a discipline that works. Since he was four years old, the Dalai Lama has been practising techniques of detachment, acceptance, humility and compassion. He describes himself as a happy person, despite the heartache and persecution he has endured.
Happiness is a habit; through training we can transform ourselves. (Malcolm Gladwell would agree – this is the spiritual version of 10,000 hours of music practice turning you into a concert pianist.) The brain designs new combinations of nerve cells and neurotransmitters in response to new input. ‘In fact, our brains are malleable,’ writes Cutler, ‘ever changing, reconfiguring their wiring according to new thoughts and experiences.’ This has profound implications for our health and wellbeing: although scientists think we have an inherited baseline of happiness, we now know that we can improve it. Happiness is a choice: what we choose to focus on becomes our dominant state.

How do we suppress negative thinking? By keeping the ego in check, by avoiding comparisons that make us dissatisfied, by challenging fear, and by silencing the destructive voice of the inner critic who sabotages our creative efforts. Our positive mental states are enhanced by affection, friendship and compassion, says the DL. To be of value, we must cultivate the qualities of warmth and kindness; then our lives become meaningful, peaceful, happier. Then we have achieved success in the true sense of the word.

Categories: On my shelf

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